John le Carré has now published 23 books, the Great Bear of that night sky being the series of novels lit by the round English gentleman, spymaster George Smiley, he who wipes his glasses with the thick end of his unfailing tie. Among the features of these spy stories is a concern with patriotism and uncertainty, not least with the uncertainties of patriotism. There are passages which can be hard to follow. Some are touched with the complexities of spyspeak; some, after all, are offered as spyspeak. Another feature is the sharp criticisms made of those at the deadly end of the dear old British civil service.
The 23rd of the books, A Delicate Truth, bears witness to its predecessors; it even has shades and rustles of Smiley’s old-world behaviour. But it’s no replica. This is more a comedy of errors, a kind of burlesque intelligence operation, crossed with moments from Buchan’s romances and from Yes Minister. There is much in the way of suspense, and more in the way of portent than of content. The enigmas and occasional knottiness of this often brilliant writer’s prose are now and then more than usually pronounced here. That two of the more prominent of the opposing characters should be called Jeb and Jay is talismanic of such difficulties, and they are at their most acute in the first fifth of the burlesque, when an evil scam, Operation Wildlife, which seeks to snatch an Islamic terrorist on or off the Rock of Gibraltar, disastrously fails, with consequences which eventually enable you to identify the opposing sides, Smiley’s people, as it were, and their enemies.
On one side is a country which consists of charming, sometimes simple souls, Toby Bell of the Foreign Office and, simplicissimus, Sir Kit Probyn, late of the Foreign Office. Seldom can a department of state have done so much for the casting of a fiction. Each is a little like that rural innocent of Evelyn Waugh’s who was sent to Africa with his forked sticks in order to be a gentleman of the press: Kit even manages a scoop. The other side is a mixed cabal consisting of a former New Labour bruiser, a suave fixer of wars and murders, and an evangelical millionairess from America. There are also weak wills and waverers, one of them no ornament to the Foreign Office. Wearing his liberal hat, he explains to Toby:
Mr Cultural Attaché Hester is not quite the amiable clown you appear determined to take him for. He’s a discredited freelance intelligence pedlar of the far-right persuasion, born again, not to his advantage, and grafted on to the Agency’s station in London at the behest of a caucus of wealthy American conservative evangelicals convinced that the Central Intelligence Agency is overrun with red-toothed Islamic sympathisers and liberal faggots.
So much for the CIA, which is included, along with certain of its detractors, among the novel’s dislikes. The native baddies explain that the British don’t do rendition, and we are left to feel that Americans do. The progressive politics noticeable in the books evokes, at times, the politics of the courageous former Foreign Office diplomat, Carne Ross, to whom acknowledgment is made.
Operation Wildlife is located on Gibraltar, and it appears to be important that the British belligerents who are tricked into participation, and forced to witness the shooting of a mother and child, keep their feet on the ground of this Crown territory. The location loosely refers to the shooting 25 years ago, by the British, of a party of active-service IRA. The CIA was not visible on that occasion. If I’ve read the runes correctly, the international dimension here is mostly, though not entirely, fictional.
Once the plot is perceived to have failed, and its exposure by the best sort of British patriot proceeds (one of them is badly hurt and another is framed as a suicide), the pace of the novel quickens and its hold tightens. Le Carré’s ancient experience of public service continues to deliver dividends, as in the allusions to the eminent person’s pout of ‘privileged discontent’, and to the pouting attitude to the civil service voiced by the last generation of Labour ministers. The novel is set, for the most part, in the twilight territory that followed the deflation of the Blair balloon. The book enlarges on a dislike of Blair and of his uncertain and mendacious Iraq operation. The more Toby is admitted to the inner councils of government,
the greater his abhorrence of the war about to happen. He rates it illegal, immoral and doomed. His discomfort is compounded by the knowledge that even the most supine of his schoolfriends are out on the street protesting their outrage. So are his parents who, in their Christian socialist decency, believe that the purpose of diplomacy should be to prevent war rather than to promote it. His mother emails him in despair: Tony Blair – once her idol – has betrayed us all.
An uncertainty of ambivalence marks the attitude to the novelist’s country which is encountered among his more sympathetic characters, loyalists who take exception to what it does. A flow of democratic sentiment pushes against the Britannic patriotism which can also be recognised in the book. It’s as if Orwell and Waugh could be found dancing together. ’Tis of his country that le Carré writes in some of his most interesting pages here. But it’s worth adding that the quality of Smiley’s ambivalence on country matters gives strength to the works in which he figures, and that it is possible to miss his astringency on this occasion, when there might have been a sharper engagement with a class-bound bureaucracy. This novel is more of a game than the Smileys are – a very spirited one, too, as it gathers speed.
John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, hits the pages of Michael Jago’s biography, The Man Who Was George Smiley, as a man of whom no one had anything but good to say but who was able to describe himself fictionally as no good at anything at all. He was a patriot, a novelist, a spy-handler, and an early friend of his one-time fellow civil servant, the future John le Carré. His nondescript dad supplied plenty of credentials: ‘Heir to a substantial inheritance, he had acquitted himself well in a decent regiment, rubbed shoulders with the nomenklatura of the British Diplomatic Service.’ Bingham’s mother was an outspoken woman from the nomenklatura of South Africa. She helped her son when there was trouble with a birth, but warned him: ‘This is the last of any money you’ll see from us.’
John Bingham was the acknowledged model for Smiley, and money had a role to play in what became of their friendship when he and le Carré turned into rival authors. Bingham’s fictions did fluctuatingly well, and the first of them, the autobiographical My Name Is Michael Sibley, is in some respects a good, certainly a suspenseful, book. It is not difficult. It dances a bit with Somerset Maugham. He is a plain stylist of few words and of too many: ‘She asked me if everything was all right, and I said it was. She asked me if anything was the matter, and I denied it.’ His first novel may be thought to have furnished a model for the clifftop-to-shoreline murder site in le Carré’s 23rd.
He was outshone by the blaze and sophistication of le Carré’s success. His friend’s discriminating treatment of the secret service was seen by him as a bestselling betrayal; his wife was highly resentful of the rewards in question. Jago pursues a distinction, gleaned from Bingham, between compassion (good) and pity (bad). It hardly seems compassionate, or sensible, to treat le Carré like this. Or to speak of postwar Germany as unsightly and sweaty, to speak of ‘the German smell’. We were almost all smelly then.
Bingham comes across as more reactionary than Smiley, let alone le Carré. He is capable of a detailed condemnation of Aneurin Bevan which does not mention the National Health Service; and he may have belonged to the MI5 set which believed that Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy. He approached his actor son-in-law in search of information about theatrical subversives.
Jago’s study is competent and fluent – prone to such smooth sentences as ‘The greatest irony is that it was to George Smiley, modelled largely on Bingham, that le Carré owed his success.’ (To Bingham, moreover, David Cornwell owed his pen-name, via the French for ‘the square’.) The novelist Bingham liked plots, as might a man who was both a novelist and a runner of agents. He didn’t like the ‘fluffy stuff’ of character-creation. Jago admires him and his works, while being willing to call him ‘uncreative’. He seems to lack, as Bingham does, a due sense of le Carré’s achievement. Bingham was too patriotic for his own good, and was not, in all senses of the word, invariably decent. He didn’t want to gather from his friend that British Intelligence was ‘a lousy lot of inefficient no-goods’; and he might not have welcomed such decisions as the one when the service handed over to the Americans, for rendition and jail, a Muslim opponent of Gaddafi’s, in the days when Tony Blair, who declared that he only ‘knows what he believes’, believed himself to be Gaddafi’s friend.